I put this series off for a while, partly because the covers were not inspiring, partly because American sports are not my thing. We don’t have ice hokey here, and sports as a whole just work differently here. But I’m so glad I did finally pick it up.
Each of the three books centers around Neil Josten. Who isn’t really Neil Josten at all. He’s the son of a criminal known as The Butcher, and he and his mother ran away. He’s in hiding and has changed his name, but he loves Exy, which is a variation on ice hockey. He joins his university team, but makes sure he plays a different position to what he was trained to play, in order to help him fly under the radar. His plan backfires, because he’s asked to join the high profile Palmetto State University (PSU) Foxes. He declines, of course, because it’s safer that way, but one of the players on the team has a connection to Neil’s father, and Neil feels like he let him down once already. Neil reluctantly agrees to join the team, but the fear of being found out is always at the forefront of his mind.
The PSU Foxes are a ragtag team of skilled players who don’t fit in to any of the more conventional university teams for whatever reason. They all have issues, and they’re an interesting bunch. In the book we start to get to know them all, but there are depths that will not become evident until later in the series.
All the members of the Exy team, plus the coach and some rivals, feature pretty consistently throughout the books, but the books center primarily around Neil, Andrew and Kevin, with Nicky as the comic relief.
It’s hard to get a read on Neil. He is playing a role and he’s constantly in fear for his life, so how do you know who the ‘real’ Neil is? Despite himself, his passion for Exy comes through, and I think the first time he has a night practice with Andrew that really shows – he watches Andrew show off and admits that he wants that level of skill and control for himself. The reader isn’t the only one who finds it hard to understand Neil – the other players do too. As the books progress, we get a better understanding of Neil’s character and he slowly finds his place among the other characters too.
Andrew is the most difficult character in the series to understand. He’s mentally ill, and he does things that no one would (or should) condone. He is violent without apologies and his motives are often bewildering or entirely hidden. It is impossible to get a read on him because he is under the influence of drugs for most of the books. It is easy to hate Andrew, especially in the first book, but as the series progresses, some of Andrew’s heartbreaking history is revealed and he starts to make more sense.
Kevin is the celebrity of the team, and the one that Neil knows from his previous life. Kevin is all about Exy, to the exclusion of everything else. Andrew basically acts as Kevin’s bodyguard, and it’s an interesting dynamic. It’s hard to see much depth to Kevin at first, although there is skill and passion, because he’s very single-minded. Eventually you learn more about what Kevin has had to deal with, and why he has become the way he has.
Despite the surface similarities of three characters who have traumatic backgrounds that hide their vulnerabilities from everyone, these three characters couldn’t be more different. I guess Neil is somewhat halfway between Andrew and Kevin because he has some of Andrew’s protectiveness and a lot of Kevin’s passion for Exy.
There is on-page trauma, and there is no denying that this series is dark. It is violent in pretty much every way it can be, up to and including torture and rape, and there is on-page substance abuse.
I got completely enthralled with these characters, all of them, in the first book and quickly moved on to the second book. By the end of the third book I’ve barely slept or taken a break from reading, and I was completely wowed by what the author had managed to achieve. I knew when I read them in July that they would be right up in the books I read for 2020. If I could have given this series more than five stars, I would have. I had the worst book hangover ever after reading this! What can you possibly read after this that would measure up?
The romance in the series is the slowest burning romance ever, and by the end of the first book you won’t even be able to imagine the characters as a couple. It takes time for that relationship to develop, and I think it’s incredibly well done. By the end of the third book, you’ll be satisfied with what the author has managed to achieve.
I will say, you don’t need to be familiar with American sports or indeed anything American to thoroughly enjoy this. As a New Zealander, I never felt like I was missing out on any of the nuances.
I highly recommend this series. It’s dark, but it’s so rewarding. And although none of the three books are standalone, as a trilogy it is complete.